David Cameron's local Heythrop hunt fined for fox hunting
Monday 17 December 2012
The Prime Minister's local hunt was fined today after admitting fox hunting.
The Heythrop Hunt, based in Oxfordshire, pleaded guilty to four charges of intentionally hunting a fox with dogs on land in the Cotswolds.
Former huntsman Julian Barnsfield, 49, and recently retired hunt master Richard Sumner, 68, also pleaded guilty to the same charges during a hearing at Oxford Magistrates' Court.
Prime Minister David Cameron, MP for Witney, has previously ridden with the hunt.
District Judge Tim Pattinson fined the hunt £4,000, Sumner £1,800 and Barnsfield £1,000.
The hunt was told to pay £15,000 towards RSPCA legal costs, Sumner £2,500 costs and Barnsfield £2,000.
Each defendant was also ordered to pay £15 victim surcharge.
The court was told the case is the first where a hunt has faced corporate charges.
Jeremy Carter-Manning QC, prosecuting for the RSPCA, said it was not in the public interest to continue proceedings against hunt master Vanessa Lambert, a director of the hunt, and whipper-in Duncan Hame following guilty pleas from the other three defendants.
The court heard the hunt was filmed on several occasions in Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire during November last year and in February and March this year by members of the Protect Our Wild Animals group.
The footage was passed to the RSPCA, which, after reviewing it, decided to prosecute.
Mr Carter-Manning told the court: "The court has before it, so far as the RSPCA is aware, the first prosecution of a hunt itself under the legislation which abolished the hunting of foxes with hounds in almost all circumstances and, in particular, traditional fox hunting.
"On the basis of the video evidence and the expert conclusions, it is the case for the prosecution that this hunt was on the four occasions spread throughout the 2011/12 season deliberately hunting in a manner which does not comply with the law.
"The guilty pleas thus carry with them the express acceptance that the fox hunting on the four occasions involved was deliberate and intentional.
"The prosecution maintain specifically that in very simple terms on each occasion on the summonses the defendants sought out and then chased live foxes and that the pursuit of the fox can by no means at any stage be properly characterised as accidental or an unwelcome consequence of otherwise legitimate activity.
"The evidence, we suggest, points to no other reasonable activity."
Philip Mott QC, representing the three defendants, said the hunt was involved in legal trail hunting - that of laying a scent for the hounds to chase - and had pursued foxes in the course of that legal activity.
"In 500 hours of recorded footage we have unlawful hunting totalling no more than 15 minutes," he said.
Mr Mott said the defendants, who were all of good character, should be given credit for their early guilty pleas.
He said both Barnsfield, of Worcester Road, Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire, and Sumner, Penhill Farm, Salperton, Gloucestershire were of limited financial means.
Passing sentence, District Judge Tim Pattinson said he found it "quite staggering" the RSPCA had spent £326,980.23 bringing the prosecution.
"Hunting of foxes provokes extremely strong feelings on both sides of the argument," he said.
"The hunting debate provoked equally strong in feelings in Parliament prior to the passing of the Hunting Act and indeed ever since the Hunting Act came into force in February 2005.
"The debate continues. Some people see the hunting of foxes as cruel and immoral, others see it as an essential tradition, part of countryside management, and say criminalising the activity is inappropriate.
"The coalition Government has indicated the possibility of a free vote in Parliament at some point in the future.
"I must put all of these matters to one side. I must sentence fairly and accordance with the law."
The district judge referred to the RSPCA costs of nearly £330,000 - without the expected 30 day trial - as a "quite staggering figure".
"Members of the public may feel that RSPCA funds can be more usefully employed," he said.
"It is not for me to express an opinion but I merely flag it up but I do find it to be a quite staggering figure.
"Essentially I was told by Mr Mott that defence costs for all five defendants were in the region of £35,000 - so that's not much more than one tenth of the prosecution costs."
The judge said that the RSPCA has asked for a £50,000 contribution from the three defendants towards its costs.
He said he was rejecting that figure as the costs should not be "grossly disproportionate" to the fines he had already imposed.
In total the hunt, Barnsfield and Sumner were ordered to pay £19,500 between them.
Speaking after the hearing, Barnsfield described the prosecution by the RSPCA as "political".
"I am staggered by it all," he said outside court. "A charitable body can take on this political thing using money that people have donated, I find staggering.
"They have picked on the Heythrop Hunt because it is in David Cameron's constituency and they are trying to put pressure on him not to give a free vote.
"Of course we were picked on.
"A free vote was promised in the House of Commons and we are still waiting for that, so Mr Cameron we are waiting for you to deliver."
Barnsfield said that although he had quit his job he was still hunting.
"There was no way I could have defended this as they spent a huge amount of money," he said.
"We pleaded guilty because the money was not there to defend ourselves.
"I would have liked to have defended it at trial but it was not possible.
"This was a very low grade offence and it could have been a 30-day trial costing £1 million.
"I just hope the supporters and donors of the RSPCA know what they are doing with their money.
"What I am doing at the moment is perfectly legal.
"The Heythrop Hunt is still hunting within the law. Nothing has changed."
Barnsfield said the legal proceedings had put a lot of stress on his family.
"It has put me and my family under a massive amount of stress and my wife has become ill through it. We all dealt some rough cards in life and we have to carry on."
Speaking after the hearing, RSPCA chief inspector Mike Butcher said: "The evidence in this case was incontrovertible - it clearly showed hounds being encouraged to pursue a fox.
"This is illegal under the Hunting Act and constitutes a wildlife crime.
"This hunt and its members were hunting foxes in direct contravention of the law for at least one whole hunting season.
"We are very grateful for the vigilance and dedication to animal welfare shown by the independent hunt monitors, including those who are members of POWA.
"Their footage was vital to our case."
RSPCA chief executive Gavin Grant added: "These defendants were well aware that they were breaking the law in that their actions would lead to a fox being torn apart by dogs.
"No doubt the hunt will say that those involved have now left and they had no knowledge of this crime.
"But the evidence of the deliberate hunting of foxes with dogs on many occasions is crystal clear.
"The truth is this hunt believed that they were above the law - they were wrong.
"This law protects our beautiful wild animals. We will ensure that it is enforced as Parliament intended.
"The RSPCA is also clear that we welcome people enjoying their horses in the countryside.
"We will work with all those that do so and act within the law. Let us join together to that end and reject wildlife criminals that abuse animals."
Mr Grant rejected the claims that the prosecution was politically motivated.
"These individuals and the Heythrop Hunt have pleaded guilty to offences under the Hunting Act as a result of this investigation," he said.
"So the suggestion this was politically motivated has been shown to be without foundation by these defendants' admissions of guilt - they are wildlife criminals.
"We will continue to be a voice for those that are unable to speak for themselves in court.
"The foxes killed by the Heythrop Hunt had no opportunity to get justice and today they have got justice.
"For 188 years the RSPCA has campaigned for better laws to protect animals and so we will continue to do that.
"I have a message for those involved in hunting that if you break the law the RSPCA and others are watching and we will bring you to justice."
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